Fourteen years ago, three Valley churches formally pledged to support one another and to work together toward the larger goal of Christian unity.
Now, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection come together every summer to offer a Bible school that is one of the most popular in the Valley. The three churches hold a joint service every year on the evening before Thanksgiving. Every Lent brings the congregations together for a celebration on Shrove Tuesday and on Good Friday they gather at St. Mary’s for Stations of the Cross.
“The tri-parish relationship we have began with a joint men’s breakfast in 1974 and it kind of grew from that,” said Rev. Bob Anderson of Good Shepherd Lutheran.
This month, in honor of Christian Unity Week, which ends Sunday, the pastors of the three churches are trading pulpits, moving from one church to another to preach during worship services. The ministers have even exchanged stoles, which they return during their visits.
“That’s part of our unity that we can all wear the same stoles, but it’s just kind of gotten fun over the years in terms of which stole you get,” said Rev. Brian Prior of the Church of the Resurrection.
A formal covenant was signed in 1984, bringing Good Shepherd together with St. Mary’s and what was then the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit. That church merged with the congregation of the All Saints Episcopal Church in 1996 to form the Church of the Resurrection, which continued with the tri-parish agreement.
“The whole congregation is committed to the tri-parish ministry now,” Prior said.
The leaders of the three churches would rather focus on what they have in common rather than their differences.
“Our worship styles and our worship services are all very similar,” Prior said. “Our commitment to outreach and community are very similar. There’s a whole lot more that we have in common than we have that separates us or that is different.”
“There was a time when differences divided at all levels,” Anderson said. “I think we’re in an era now in which differences are part of our individual character and we all fit together. There’s a closeness that comes even when there are differences, because there’s something greater that pulls us together.”
The three church leaders all speak of Christian unity and the role that idea, or ideal, plays in their collaboration.
“For the congregation as a whole, there is a growing awareness of our growth toward unity,” said Rev. Steve Dublinski of St. Mary’s. “One of the essential parts of being Catholic today is to be a Catholic growing toward unity with other churches.”
But while he is looking toward the goal of achieving Christian unity, Dublinski said that exactly what that means is still uncertain.
“We do not have a fixed idea in our mind of what the unity will look like,” Dublinski said. “It’s kind of a work of art in progress, you might say.”
In some ways, that unity has already been achieved.
When Sue and Chris Newman married, she came from a Baptist and Assembly of God background and he regularly attended a Catholic church. After years of searching, they decided to compromise and attend a Lutheran church. When they moved to this area five years ago, the couple chose to join Good Shepherd Lutheran largely because of the tri-parish agreement that was in place.
“I’d say that was one of the major points that helped us decide,” Sue Newman said. “It was a way for him to explore another church without saying goodbye to his church, his roots.”
Another factor that was important to Sue was the fact that the tri-parish agreement speaks of an open mindedness toward other denominations.
“I don’t think that God is so limited that he thinks only one religion is right,” Sue Newman said. “This is a way for us to share what we have in common and also our differences. We felt that we could belong here.”
Chris Newman said that when he first joined a Lutheran church, he felt that he was closing a door on his past, even cutting himself off from his Catholic family. But being a part of the Valley’s tri-parish has allowed him to keep that door open. “I sort of feel like I have the best of both worlds,” he said.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PULPIT EXCHANGES Rev. Bob Anderson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church will preach at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 12817 E. Broadway, at the 8 and 10 a.m. services this Sunday and at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 304 S. Adams Road, at the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Jan. 31 and the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Feb. 1. Rev. Brian Prior of the the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection will preach at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 810 S. Sullivan, at the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services on Feb. 8 and at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at the 9 and 11:15 a.m. Masses on Feb. 1. Rev. Steve Dublinski and Rev. Edward Borchardt of St. Mary’s Catholic Church have already completed their visits to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.